Saturday, August 6, 2011

Salmon and Humpbacks and Orcas - Oh, my!

I came to Alaska with a fascination for bears, and I left with a fascination for spawning salmon and breaching whales. Our time in Seward was spent looking for all of the above, and the salmon and the whales were found in abundance.

Clay had read that there was a good chance we might see some bears in the wild near a certain salmon spawning site so, ever aiming to please, he made sure we stopped there on the way to Portage Glacier.  We took a very short walk to the edge of a river and there they were -- not the hoped-for bears, but the brightest and liveliest salmon I could imagine.  It looked like they were having the time of their lives doing synchronized swimming but, in fact, they were coming to their end.  If salmon are not caught by man or beast, they experience a spell of fasting in preparation for laying their eggs, and then they die!  This being salmon spawning season,  maybe they looked so happy because they had escaped the fisherman's hook and the bear's jaws but instead were facing a more natural death.  No bears near these shores, but oodles of large, sparkling pink fish!

The following day we had the adventure of a lifetime, kayaking Aialik Bay heading toward the vast Aialik Glacier.  Yes, it was cold and, yes, it was wet, but the experience was incomparable.

Not only were the sights breathtaking, but the sound of the glacier repeatedly calving was akin to the scariest thunder clapping over and over again.  We watched the ice come crashing down, feeling the rumbling very close to the glacier when in reality we were probably a half-mile away.  This, of course, was impossible to photograph since the timing was completely unpredictable, but I will not need a photo to remember the sensation of being in a kayak, hearing a loud crack, Clay yelling "Look straight ahead!" and seeing a wall off ice come crashing down into the bay.

In order to get back and forth to our kayaking trip, we took a rather long water taxi to our launch site on Aialik Bay.  The bumpy ride was quite entertaining, though, as we saw Humpback whales on the way out and Orcas on the way back.  We actually were able to video one of the humpbacks breaching (watch the left hand side of your screen at the very start),


and our captain told us that this pod of Orcas was the most playful he could remember. There were six or eight of them swimming around our boat, prompting me to quote the infamous and lovable Sheriff Brady (aka Roy Scheider): "We are gonna need a bigger boat!" Again, the photos cannot do justice to the experience, but Clay captured a bit of footage that includes the utterances of the whales as caught by the captain's hydra phone.


We never could have done this without the leadership and guidance of the folks at Kayak Adventures Worldwide.  Under the leadership of Wendy and Dave Doughty, and the expertise of our guide, John, we were safely shepherded around an environment that we knew nothing about.  We could not have been in better hands and it was a trip we will never ever forget.  Wendy and Dave also run the lodge that we stayed at, Bear Paw Lodge, where we had all the comforts of home despite the rather unfamiliar setting.

Finally, I report that we saw those much desired bears in the wild on three occasions, and each one was a thrill.  The final one was near Bear Paw Lodge, just running along a stream, and I got a kick out of seeing this 400 pound creature run 5 times faster than I ever could.  Happy memories, all, and here is just one that I will never forget (and thank goodness for zoom lenses!).

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Characters We Have Met Along the Way

In the early '90s, there was a television show about the lives of quirky Alaskans called "Northern Exposure." I thought the characters, odd and bizarre, were meant to be exaggerations as most television characters are, but I am here to tell you that we recognize the writers' inspiration.  Here are merely the impressions of the intrepid travelers, Marcy and Clay.

We thought Alaskans would be frontier people, testing limits, pushing boundaries.  The best indication that this is not so is their driving habits.  We wondered why everyone was driving so slowly, and the answer is that they were simply following absurdly low speed limits for wide and empty roadways. Yes, I may have a lead foot, but must we go 30 mph when there are two cars within sight and only mountains in our peripheral vision?  We learned the hard way when Clay noticed in his rearview mirror the colorful flashing lights of a police car.  Officer Brohm politely asked Clay if there was any particular reason for our rush as we had exceeded the speed limit, and told us that we were going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone -- hmmmm.  Proof positive that the Alaskan drivers follow their rules, but the real question is WHY a 35 mph speed limit?  One other example, among many, is when our hotel clerk was very clear about how to use a parking spot because "there is always the chance you may have to cross a double yellow line, and the police are watching for that."  Uh-oh -- I might hit the pedestrian who comes along once an hour.

When asked by any polite soul "How are you?", beware of responding "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?"  This will elicit their entire life story.  I now know more about the busy lives of several Alaskans ("3 jobs in a season"), one's tension headache at 7:30 a.m., another's busy work schedule that precludes her ability to check the weather report, and a great deal about the social lives of several young women, at least two of whom were mothers barely out of their teen years.  So the Alaskans seem to need to make all their conversation in the 3 months that comprise tourist season. They have nonetheless been very friendly, open, and generous to a person.  Just leave time to listen.

I have been impressed by the industriousness of women who are running businesses and, I imagine, juggling much more.  Most every business we have encountered (our kayak tour, several restaurants of all kinds, shopkeepers, a winery) has been managed, if not owned, by women. The guys are out fishing for a living. I get a sense of Grrrrrl Power, which puts Sarah Palin into context a bit.  Her style is not unique here -- the outgoing, "glad to meetcha" demeanor is quite common. She just inexplicably has too many people listening. We waited, however, for an Alaskan to bring her up before we ever did, just curious to see how long it would take.  Once someone did mention the ex-gov on Day 5, it was with derision and indignation, reminding us that Ms. Palin has an 80% disapproval rating in this state.  The same woman who told us that made the good point that 60% of the voting population in Alaska is male, much of it single fishermen young and old, most of it white.  Need we say more?

For all its land size, Alaska is a quiet, fairly parochial place.  The hard-working folks are as fascinated by our "exotic" NYC home as people are that we have met abroad.  I have yet to meet an unlikeable soul, and I've gotten to know much more than I expected about plenty of them.  And they are clearly dog-lovers, and you gotta love that!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Kayak Beach Overnight

When I dreamed of going to Alaska, my hope was to get as far from civilization as I could to appreciate and enjoy nature.  I wanted to be in the mountains, on the rivers and the sea, and under the stars without human or "civilized" distractions.   After spending a night at the Bear Creek Lodge in Homer, we took an early morning water taxi to Yukon Island in order to get in a double kayak to paddle around the Herring Islands of Kachemak Bay.  We each had a knapsack with enough layers for one overnight in any kind of weather.  As it turned out, we had exceptionally fine weather: bright and sunny and almost hot!  We were accompanied by Mia, our young guide, who made sure we found our way safely through mild currents, spotted the wildlife and gave us all sorts of information on the geology and zoology of the area and, most importantly, Mia carried food and water in her kayak so we would make it till tomorrow!

In our first few hours we spotted adorable river otters playing on the shore, majestic bald eagles that I had previously only seen on stamps and Republican campaign ads, and plenty of colorful birdies who guided our way.  More impressive to me, though, are the snow-capped mountains, striking glaciers, and green valleys that surrounded our expedition as the paddling made a quiet lapping sound in the tranquil water.  Words cannot describe, and photos do not do justice.  What I can say is that I felt at peace in that water like I have felt nowhere else.  I am a great beach fan and like to find solace in the peace and quiet of an ocean beach, but there are inevitably others around on whom I feel compelled to eavesdrop, stories to be created about the strangers around me, or food and drink to be planned and organized.  This trip on Kachemak Bay, though, was free of all of that.  We barely saw another soul for hours on end and the only thing on my mind, when I allowed, was some crazy plot I conjured up for a movie about bears!

Our home away from home that night was in a yurt on Kayak Beach.  We had sleeping bags on mattresses, romance promised by firelight, and the only thing we expected to see were the stars in the sky.  Now I will remind you that it gets dark here at 11 p.m. at this time of year (no exaggeration!) so I was fast asleep before any stars made their appearance, and our weather was so unusually warm for Alaska that a fire in our yurt would have smothered us.  After a fairly rigorous afternoon hike up Grace Ridge Trail which afforded us a panoramic view of the grand bay we had just been navigating, camp food cooked by Mia over an open fire, and a quiet evening spent on the beach reflecting on our amazing good fortune, Clay and I slept harder than the logs that surrounded us in all directions!

By waking on Kayak Beach and spending most of the day in our kayaks, we got to see the region in all kinds of light.  Morning light is, of course, different than afternoon light, and we were able to appreciate the majestic landscape as it showed different colors and shades at different times of day.  Our kayaking on day 2 was more thrilling than the day before.  For one thing, I felt more acclimated and comfortable in the water, and we came across a large sea otter quite close to our kayaks doing what they do which, while it appears to be a sun bath, is really a break from deep sea fishing.  She was wrapped in kelp which Mia told us was normal, and seemed to be flossing her teeth but was probably eating a fish.  We got to see this sea otter very closely and I thought it was adorable!  Then there were the 2 seals who popped their heads out of the water like ninjas, making a quick and stealthy appearance.  More eagles, including one who swooped down and carried off a rather large fish, and bigger swells made for an exciting day, which culminated in exhaustion from all the outdoor activity.  By 3 p.m., our water taxi picked us up and we happily headed back to the mainland.  You can rest assured that we got a bottle of wine ASAP once on shore to speed up our transition back to quiet and lovely Homer.
We are off to Seward now to explore a different side and terrain of the Kenai Peninsula. Glaciers and icefields await us as does, I suspect, a change in the weather. Some lingering scenes from our time on the Homer side of the Kenai, for the video lovers among us --

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alaska Overwhelms

Other visitors to Alaska had told me about the breadth of space I would find here, but I was not prepared for the vast magnitude of the mountains, the greenery, the glaciers, and the over-arching sky.  We based ourselves in Girdwood, AK, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage, for our introduction to Alaska and it served us quite nicely.  We saw animals we planned to see and animals we did not plan to see, and even experienced a 5.3 magnitude earthquake!

The Winner Creek hike begins right off the Alyeska Resort property where we were staying.  It is a 5-mile hike through the woods surrounded by mountain walls, fairly frequent waterfalls, and skies punctuated by pointed glaciers.  Easy to navigate and negotiate, the hike's only challenge was the hand tram across a gorge.  It's called a hand tram because that's how you power yourself across -- hand over hand on a basic rope.  Take a look - it was tons of fun.

Gilly, the moose calf
Back on the ground, we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a non-profit center dedicated tot he rescue and preservation of wild animals.  We took a "behind the scenes" tour which allowed us to feed moose calves, and pet Snickers, the porcupine, Hershey, the reindeer, and Julie, the Sitka deer. There were huge deer and elk to see, including Roosevelt Elk, named for T.R.'s preferred prey!  Best of all, though, was observing black, brown, and Kodiak bears in a natural, albeit safely confined area.  The Kodiak bears were being trained while we were there, and the trainer was sitting as close to them as I sit with our doggy, and the whole routine did not actually look so different!

The following day began with a bear spotting right on the road.  On our way to Crow Pass Trail, we came around the corner (in our car, thankfully!) to what we thought was a puppy off its leash with a red collar.  But this was no puppy, and there was no leash; it was a brown bear cub evidently tagged with a red marker.  He heard our car as we saw him and scurried away as quickly as he appeared.  We drove ahead only half hoping to see mother and siblings!  No more bears on that day!
The Crow Pass hike, itself, was thrilling and quite challenging.  It was majestic in its scope, uphill all the way, and went into a remote valley with spectacular waterfalls as our reward. We didn't quite make it to the Pass but stopped after 2 steep miles to make a much easier and quicker trek down!

I would like to write about accommodations and dining, both spectacular in Girdwood, but time is limited and wi-fi is weak.  We are now in Homer, about to embark on our overnight kayaking trip in Kachemak Bay. A bright, clear, sunny day greets us. We are in a whole different environment and climate that welcomes quite a different population from Girdwood, and I look forward to sharing about that in another post.  I will leave you with a most exciting sight from our drive along the Kenai River en route to Homer.  As Clay said, this is the way we like our bear sightings -- from the other side of the river.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Seattle's Best - Family and Friends

The first leg of our Alaskan adventure was to spend the weekend in Seattle, a place we had both visited many times. What brought us here? 'Not Pike Place Market (right near our hotel, Inn at Harbor Steps, which I have reviewed on TripAdvisor here), not Mt. Rainier (easily visible), and not the weather (quite perfect, actually!). We came for the love of old friends and cherished family. We got the locals' tour of The Rainier Valley from my oldest friend in the world, Susan Davis, who is the Executive Director of the Rainier Chamber Foundation. It's a great area, described by Susan as including the most diverse zip code in the country, and that was evident in the variety of shops and patrons. We were joined by Susan's husband and son, had a spectacular Thai lunch, and they did a top notch job of showing off their neighborhood with well-deserved pride. Later that day we had a home-cooked meal, salmon and veggies picked straight from Bruce's lovingly tended garden, all grilled to perfection by Chef Bruce. YUMMY!

Emi - Could she be any cuter?!
Susan and I have known each other since we were teenagers, and she celebrated with me in Madrid a long while ago when my first niece, Sarah, was born far off in Syracuse, New York. Today Sarah lives -- where else -- in Seattle, with her husband, Isaac, and the next generation of our family, the precious and adorable Emi. My feelings for Emi remind me of my feelings for each of my nieces and nephew at the sweet age of 2 and 1/2 -- marvel, wonder, and gushing love. Clay and I enjoyed tickling Emi, playing fishies on the iPhone with Emi, and reading to Emi at Sarah and Isaac's West Seattle home. We took an easy bus ride there and a fun water taxi back to our hotel. Blue skies, bright sunshine, and friendly folks greeted us wherever we went. We brought the day to perfection when we had dinner again with Susan and Bruce, this time at Seattle's own Tom Douglas's Dahlia Lounge, a beautifully appointed restaurant with delicious food, and a chance for some deeper conversation and reminiscence.

Susan and Bruce
The next generations
I came to Seattle with a handful of goals, the most practical of which was to adjust to the time and temperature change from brutally hot NYC. 'Done. The higher goal was to enjoy the company of my beloved friends and family on their home turf. This goal was more than met, and my cup runneth over. This was a time when travel brought me closer to home!

On to Alaska but for a delay at Sea-Tac Airport -- a sick crew member has grounded us until they can find a replacement, so our long-awaited flight to Anchorage will just have to wait a little longer!  Advice to self:  be here now.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pure Americana

A summer Saturday in New England - what could show more Yankee Americana than the annual Pickin' 'n Fiddlin' Contest in Roxbury, Connecticut?  On wide-open Hurlburt Field, we enjoyed music of fiddles, mandolins, acoustic guitars, and more played by musicians ranging in age from 8 years old to about 80 years old!  At times, the people-watching even beat out the music, as the audience included families of all ages, folks from near and far, and even some celebrities that hide out in this haven they can happily call home.  There were vendors, including Goatboy Soaps, who brought along their very own goat in case we were skeptical of the soap's origins.
"Kid", no kidding!
The event supports the The Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department, and is planned each year by Billy Steers, a member of that department, who also designed the posters and the T-shirts!  Good eats were available from local organizations like Roxbury Market, the Women's Auxiliary unit of the Roxbury Volunteer Fire Department, among others. We enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs, pulled pork sandwiches, ice cream, and even cotton candy.  All in all, a day in the park -- overflowing with good times and warm feelings.

Home for the evening - back to the big city to enjoy our urban version of pure Americana, pizza and wine on our roof, with memories of pickin' 'n fiddlin' drowning out the car horns and metropolitan commotion.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Is it a Camp or a Lodge?

The Adirondack State Park is as large as the state of Massachusetts, and offers a great variety of options for lodging.  Many of those are called "camps" going back to the late 19th century when wealthy New Yorkers traveled to the mountains for a vacation in a rustic setting.  Times have not changed much, though this is a quieter, less touristed vacation spot than the more common destinations of many New Yorkers. By standards both present and past, some "camps" border on elegant, and some are more true to my definition of that word - musty cabins and campsites for families of all sizes.  The Hedges, in Blue Mountain Lake, NY is comfortably beyond the middle -- just the right mix of mountain life with cozy and modern amenities.  It is very nicely appointed, but you will not find plush towels, fancy soaps, or multi-ply toilet paper.  You will find clean and cozy accommodations with a friendly and unobtrusive staff there to meet your minimal needs.  Lodge or camp: their website does not do the place justice.

The setting of The Hedges is magnificent, right on Blue Mountain Lake with its wondrous varieties of color, and sunshine glinting off the water in the late afternoon.  The property has a host of cabins, two lodges, a dining room, and swimming and boating docks. The boating dock is equipped with canoes and kayaks just waiting to be used (for no fee!), and visitors can spend as long as they like exploring the area with paddles in hand. The entire attitude at The Hedges is "do as you please" and that may mean parking yourself in a rocking chair and reading for hours, hiking the extensive trails in the area, playing bingo or making ice cream, or boating and swimming.  There are no camp counselors or announcements to be heard, instead there is a hushed tone and slow pace throughout the resort.  Our favorite hours were spent on lounge chairs at the end of a dock, sipping wine while the lake lapped inches away.

The accommodations are comfortable, handsome, and satisfying. Our room was ample and attractive, with wood details and paneling.  Common rooms have fireplaces along with chess, checkers, board games, and puzzles. Breakfast and dinner are served in a big-enough dining room and are included in your stay, and we found both to be generous and delicious.  Shorts and t-shirts were the common wardrobe at meals.  A picnic lunch can be purchased and it, too, is healthful and yummy, served appealingly in a picnic basket with cloth napkins. You are given a flashlight when you check in because it's quiet and still after dark, though there is a campfire and s'mores if you are out watching the stars and find yourself still hungry!
Stone Lodge at The Hedges
So while the building we stayed in was called Stone Lodge and catered to adults only, The Hedges offered a camp-like feel with lodge-like amenities.  A happy combination for our peaceful few days in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There were three productive and beautiful days that I spent with NYSAIS colleagues at the Think Tank 2011 (#nysaistt11), in Rensselaerville, New York, imagining, exploring, and creating better ways for teachers to learn and collaborate in the interest of their students. We confirmed the creation of The Council for Professional Learning and Collaboration (CPLC), established and promoted a community space for teachers at NYSAIS schools to experience and continue their professional development, and we opened up a Twitter feed for NYSAIS: Nysaisnow.  It was a stirring, motivating, and energizing think tank, and worth every minute.  'Thinking big thoughts, seeing forests filled with possibilities, and trying to see the trees to keep sight on what matters.  Now on to vacation!

The Adirondack hike was described as "fairly easy", though "steep at the end" with "great views for small effort."  Sounds terrific, right?  Every step, however, had to be measured, most of them uphill over exposed tree roots, mud puddles, rocks and branches.  I watched my every obstacle, with head down more than up, so missed out on the expanse around me. It was a great mental challenge and, like all mental challenges, quite tiring. Would there be a payoff, as promised?

After an hour, I cried "uncle", and Clay said he would sprint ahead to see how much was left and whether that "great view" would really be worth it. We agreed to a five minute window for search, then allowing for 5 minutes for Clay to return to me. While he explored, I sat still, imagined bears behind trees, and I started to whistle a happy tune.  At almost precisely the 5 minute mark, I heard Clay groan satisfyingly and I knew he had found the peak.  He called down to me that it was definitely worth the last trek, and we began our rendezvous with me heading up and him heading down.  We joined up, went the last tenth of a mile together;  a rocky uphill scramble through narrow passageways, more like a climb than a hike.  It was fun and, because I trust Clay and his satisfying groans, very promising. Once at the top, there was the open face of Castle Rock with an expansive view of Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, and Eagle Lake surrounded by green mountains the likes of which only late June and early July can provide!  There was the forest, with its trees, lakes, and sky.  Everything in its time, its place.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Once was Enough!

Arriving at the put-in, I looked at Clay with awe in order to remind myself why I was doing this.  We were enjoying a marvelous vacation in Costa Rica, and only for the man of my dreams would I fulfill his delight to raft the Rio Pacuare.  His goal was thrill and excitement in a jungle setting beyond compare, my goal was to have it over!  The rapids are levels III and IV, and for the uninitiated, level V rapids only exceed IV by the fast sequence of tough currents, so at level IV we would be experiencing fast, bouncing jumps over jagged and sharp rocks in a narrow canyon.  I had rafted in levels II and III elsewhere and knew that this was not my preferred sport, but there is that tremendous love that compelled me to join Clay and see his face light up with glee with each and every rapid conquered.

The Pacuare roams through eastern, central Costa Rica, cutting a swath through deep and old flora and fauna that put me in mind of Jurassic Park.  We passed the occasional waterfall, saw colorful and rare birds, and were able to swim in shallows that tried to make this whole daring adventure worthwhile. We were Jorge, our knowledgeable, trustworthy, and rather slight guide, Clay, a sizable man whose heft I counted on to keep us upright, and me, a petite, but strong, risk-averse type. Having only three of us in our raft seemed enviable and wrong at the same time, but Jorge assured me we would be fine on our two day trip, as long as I followed his instructions and did my part.  I hoped my part would be to lay prone on the bottom of the raft only to get up when we reached dry land again but, no, I had to paddle front, back left, and right, which only frightened me more to know I was being depended upon.  It’s hard for me to believe that I did much, but I lived to tell, so I must have done good!

Some rapids were light and lovely, but most were shockingly rough and fast, tossing our raft perilously close to canyon walls, shooting up at an angle of nearly 45 degrees with me holding on to small canvas tabs for dear life.  Jorge warned us when the tough ones were coming and what our plan would be, but that all rendered useless once when I looked over at Clay and saw the better part of his strong frame out of the boat with barely a toe hold to support him.  “So now we’re going to see what this is like,” I thought to myself as I looked away from fear and envisioned Clay out of the boat followed by Jorge to save him, leaving me alone in this fast moving rubber duckie.  Jorge yelled to me “Paddle, paddle”, which I did, and when I looked back to Clay he was still there, saved by that one big toe that I loved even more than I had an hour before.  Jorge marveled that Clay was still among us, I shocked myself by laughing heartily, and Clay looked triumphant.

The voyage was divided by a romantic night at a remote, isolated jungle lodge that lent itself to spooky stories fueled by red wine.  This was where Clay made my trip worthwhile, but I knew the whole time that the only way to get out would be 4 bouncy hours and about 10 challenging rapids later when I would see a parking lot and crawl out of that raft to touch Costa Rica’s dry land forever after. I am so glad I did that, but please don’t ever make me do it again!

Making the Most of Old Man Winter

It is no secret that we in the northeastern U.S. had a mighty dose of winter in 2011.  Snow events every other week, cold temperatures, and all the challenges that those present to city folk have made many wonder ‘When will it ever end?”

Having grown up in a cold and snowy climate, I know that the best way to beat these conditions is to join them.  This would be the winter to go cross-country skiing and give snowshoeing a try, both of which I enjoyed at Mountain Top Resort and Inn in Chittenden, VT.  I took a cozy cabin for the Presidents Day weekend, equipped with fireplace and majestic view, and spent my days in the wondrous wilderness of the Green Mountains of Vermont.  Those Green Mountains were white all over, thick and deep with snow, making for excellent outdoor sport conditions.

My travel partner and I are cross-country skiers, something I heartily recommend to those downhill skiers who find skiing a part of their past for fear of those rascally snowboarders or, more likely, of later life injury.  On this trip we tried snowshoeing, which was a more than pleasant diversion from the efforts of skiing.  I have always wondered what it would be like to be in the depths of a forest in the middle of winter without a soul around.  What does nature look, sound, and feel like under wintry conditions?  Snowshoeing allowed me to find out.  I heard large and old trees creaking, the pecking of a woodpecker echoing throughout the forest, and I saw sun-dappled shadows of tree limbs on un-trodden white snow.  Best of all, my travel partner and I could stroll side by side without a care in the world, enjoying nature and conversation without the worry of method, technique, or equipment. The jury is out, but he may find it is hard to get me on skis again!

The Mountain Top Resort provides everything you could want – comfortable accommodations, though nothing fancy, an ample dining room with a generous breakfast, an ice skating rink, sleigh rides, and a Nordic center equipped with ski rentals and lessons.  And if you’re not prone to activity, there is a spacious relaxing lobby with comfy seating where you can while away the hours with a book or just enjoy the view.   And what ski resort would be complete without a welcoming tavern equipped with a pool table for a little frivolity.  After all that outdoor fun, there is nothing like a hot toddy and the sound of laughter to cap off your day!

As the weekend came to an end, we approached the finish to February.   If I could spend my weekends in winter wonderlands like this one, I would be in no rush at all!

New York City Dining, fine and otherwise

Like all Manhattanites, I have a tiny kitchen.  With some custom refinements, I have turned it into a decent working space and love to cook when time and focus allow.  Also like all Manhattanites, we can gratefully choose from infinite choices for dining out, and we make it our business to try as many of those choices as possible.  Special places, cheap places, and all sorts in between, we are experts in dining on what is known as the Upper West Side  (UWS).  How do we do it without breaking the bank? We find deals through aggregating sites, such as Blackboard Eats and, which come in handy for saving $$.  All of the restaurants who participate in these sites welcome our business, and we have never been treated as anything but welcome when presenting our discount coupon.

The restaurants listed below are largely on the upper west side of Manhattan (W. 59th St. - W 125th St.), broken down by price range, and several of them have appeared on Blackboard Eats or  I am also including a short list from the theater district since just about everyone is baffled about where to eat in that area without spending a load of dough.  Take a look, and then take a try!  Let us know what you think.

Cheap enough:
Amsterdam Ale House: 340 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St. - good wings, burgers, full bar, etc.
Cafe at Fairway (v. good for breakfast/brunch/lunch) -- on Broadway and 74th St. in the upstairs of the grocery store.  Kind of a cool setting, and a great place for Brunch. Becomes a steakhouse at dinner -- low key and comfortable.
Gray’s Papaya - if you're willing to eat hot dogs, these are famed to be the best in NYC and they're on Broadway and 72nd St.!  Wait till you see the biz they do.
Shake Shack - The best deal in NY, and there are branches all over.  We go to Columbus and 78th St., but there’s one in the theater district, too. Great burgers; be prepared to wait in line, and during the day there are often kids here.  Evenings are fine.
Dinosaur BBQ - 700 W. 125th St. at 12th Ave. - Cheap, good barbecue but uptown quite a bit.  It is near Columbia University, if that’s useful.  Very popular, and near the #1 train, so be adventurous and go!

Medium prices:
Riposo 72  - W. 72nd between Columbus and Amsterdam Aves. - a favorite wine bar of Clay's and mine with good, fresh food, tho the wine list has gone downhill.
The Tangled Vine - Amsterdam and W. 81st Street - wine bar with exceptional food.  Better wine list than Riposo (above) and much better food.
Landmarc - Columbus Circle -- great food (fantastic steak salad) and bar, but weird, albeit convenient, location.  It's in the Time Warner Center which is a shopping mall, but it's a reliable place for steaks and salad.  Good breakfasts, too.  Only reliable and reasonable place near Lincoln Center.
Josie's - Amsterdam and 73rd St.  Really good food; reliably fresh and healthy.
Citrus - Amsterdam and 75th St. -- Festive atmosphere (try the pineapple-infused tequila!), always yummy food - same owners as Josie’s.
Accademia di Vino - 2427 Broadway at 89th St.  - good, lighter Italian food.  Pricey, but reliably yummy.  There’s one on the east side, too -- these places are always busy so reservations are recommended
Penang - Malaysian - 127 W. 72nd between Amsterdam and Columbus.  Really yummy and quite reasonable.
Amber - Columbus and W. 70th St.  - Fantastic and reasonable sushi, as well as other Asian food.  This is a real find -- quality and price-wise.
Five Napkin Burger - Broadway and W. 84h St. - Exactly what it sounds like.  Great burgers - -big -- and a lively atmosphere.
Kefi -  Greek - EXCELLENT! but very busy.  Columbus and 84th - try to get a reservation unless you go early.  Will not disappoint.
Luke’s Lobster - Amsterdam around 80th St. Really great lobster rolls at reasonable prices.  It’s a hole in the wall, but they deliver, too!

Expensive but, oh, so special: (all require reservations; many on Open Table)
Ouest (pronounced "West") -- our favorite in the neighborhood - Broadway and 84th.  We love to go there for special occasions.  Great, hearty food, with very ample portions (and drinks -- try their cosmopolitans!).
‘Cesca (pronounced “Chesca”) - W. 75th St. just east of Amsterdam -- a personal favorite for eating at the bar (no reservations required to eat in the bar area).  Just charming, and the food is terrific.  Excellent and extensive wine list.  Same owners as Accademia di Vino (see above), but you pay for warmer atmosphere at Cesca.  Food is equally good at the two places.  If money matters, go to Accademia.
Telepan - Columbus and 69th St. - romantic, and delicious, fresh food; they pride themselves on local, which is great in three seasons out of four in NY!
Fatty Crab - 2170 Broadway, between 76-77; Hip, of the moment, interesting food.  Very loud and, I think, overpriced, but if you want to go somewhere that’s considered cool and the food is interesting and will not disappoint, this place will do it.
The Mermaid Inn - 568 Amsterdam Ave., between 87-88 -- Seafood, obviously, really fun, nice place.
Atlantic Grill - 49 W. 64th St., just east of Broadway.  Pricey fish place, but has the benefit of being very convenient to Lincoln Center.  Great service and excellent food, but you’ll pay for it.
Red Rooster - 310 Lenox Ave., between 125-126th St., This place is steps from the subway (#2 or #3 trains).  The hottest place in town right now and for good reason. The food and drinks are fantastic, and the atmosphere is really fun and exciting.  There’s a fabulous vibe at this place, and the food does not disappoint.

And just a few in the theater district:
Island Burgers and Shakes  -- 766 9th Ave. and 51st St.  Just what it says -- really good, cheap, tiny.
Gallo Nero - Italian - 402 W. 44th between 9th and 10th Aves.  Tiny place, but really yummy food.
Bali Nusa Indah - 652 9th Ave., between 45th-46th  Indonesian; delicious and cheap.  A real find in the theater district if you don’t want something ordinary.
Five Napkin Burger  - see above; there’s one on 9th Ave. at about 49th St. that can be very convenient before or after theater.
Elsewhere - 10th Ave. at 43rd ST. Great place for pre-theater, and you can make a meal out of the appetizers.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Hudson Valley in Springtime

Bash Bish Falls
Clay and I spent a delightful April weekend with the blooming flowers and trees in the Hudson Valley.  Stationed in the terrific home in Craryville, NY of our friends, John and Carl, it was a perfect combination of rest, relaxation, discovery, and dog!

Craryville, itself, is nothing to write home about, but it is conveniently right off the Taconic State Parkway, and our friends, John and Carl,  have a comfortable, dog-friendly A-frame house complete with fireplace and plenty of woods to roam.  Lovie and I took our regular squirrel hunts, but this time there were deer, chipmunks, and wild turkey for him to scout, and he did a great job. Clay and Lovie enjoyed some great time together in an open field chasing a ball, and I'm never sure who has more fun at John and Carl's - Lovie or us!

Beyond the house, there was plenty to explore, including Olana, home of the Hudson Valley School painter, Frederick Church, an easy hike to  Bash Bish Falls (above) and, my personal favorite, the Rodgers Book Barn in nearby Hillsdale, New York.  Art and architecture at the first, Mother Nature at her finest at the second, and a treasure trove of used books for sale at the third -- what more could someone ask for?

We did have to eat, of course, and we sampled two fine places in Hudson, New York.  Baba Louie's is a well-known, popular pizza place where the waitress urged us to "Skip the pasta, go for the salads and pizza", which we did.  Sadly, both of our pizzas were over baked and dry which spoiled the otherwise fresh and tempting ingredients.  Another night we had the great good fortune of eating at Swoon Kitchenbar.  We each had a delectable meal that could compare with any fine dining we have done in New York City or elsewhere.  I had a mushroom tart for an appetizer followed by a  spectacular and special cavatelli dish with ricotta cheese and chicken sausage (YUM!).  Clay had a cheese plate for an appetizer, unusual for him, followed by one of the more memorable dishes of leg of lamb either of us has ever had.  The wine selection was quite fine, and when I asked for a recommendation for a very dry white, I was referred to a French wine, L'Insolite, that was precious and perfect for my dish.  We left completely happy and satisfied, and will surely return the next time we have a chance.

I can't exclude lunches: one day was a quick trip to Great Barrington, MA for lunch at a favorite spot: The Great Barrington Bagel Co., accurately renowned as "the best lunch in the Berkshires"; and the other lunch was at Hudson Park Burgers, which is a burger stand replete with baseball memorabilia that I suspect is mobbed in season.  We were a bit early in the season, so the place was blessedly quiet, but we had a classic lunch of hand-packed grilled burgers, shakes, and fries that followed our tour of Olana perfectly.   'A bit of town and gown, if you catch my drift.

All of this outdoor activity, good eating, and happy dog time was enough to tire out the males of the family, and here's proof -- with a taste of the welcoming place we called home for three days.